Open, broken, and full – that’s my heart before, during and after, when I am graced to journey with my incarcerated sisters and brothers in California state prisons.
About a year ago a good friend of mine asked me if I would be willing to think about teaching in California prisons in place of her. She said, “I love the work and it is hard to give up but I think I need to.”
She thought, for a number of reasons, that I might be willing to do this and would be good at it. After praying about it I said yes.
My first experience was with her in May at Solano State Prison for males. In October, I was in Chowchilla State Prison for females and in November in Valley State Prison for males. Soon I will return to Solano. The State of California contracts with Options for Recovery, a drug abuse treatment program in Oakland, CA, to offer a program for inmates which results in them becoming Certified Drug and Alcohol Addiction Counselors for the State of California. After months of coursework they sit for the state exam and, after passing, are rewarded licensure.
The piece I offer covers trauma recovery, family systems, anger, forgiveness and mindfulness. The material is presented in such a way that participants can move toward healing from their own abuse/trauma which often results in alcohol/drug addictions and violent behavior, and become facilitators for healing others.
I say my heart is open because months before I will meet with the students, I begin to pray for them, asking God to help us all heal in our time together.
My prayer goes something like this: “God, you who are love and compassion, open my heart to my brothers/sisters as I prepare to be with them. You know who they are and what their wounds are. Just please help me have an open heart to receive them and their pain.”
Then, when I meet with them, probably in the first hour, I tell them I see them as my sisters or brothers and have been holding them in my heart, bringing them to God, before I have met them. As I sincerely share this with them, we begin to bond.
The following passage from Henri Nouwen’s book, Compassion, speaks to me of my broken heart during my time with my brothers and sisters.
He writes, “…compassion is such a deep, central and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. There all the divine tenderness and gentleness lies hidden. There, God is father and mother, brother and sister, son and daughter. There, all feelings, emotions and passions are one in divine love. When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.” (pp 16-17)
My own heart breaks and is moved to compassion as I experience their brokenness. The stories of their lives that the women and men entrust to me could truly make me weep. Often as I listen, I think, “How could they have done any differently, or been anyone else after experiencing that or being treated that way?” And yes, they teach me so much about compassion themselves.
As I was sharing my thoughts on forgiveness with the men, halfway through I thought to myself, “Having lived so much more, they should be teaching me.”
The next day one of the men shared his story with me, “You know how I first started to learn how to begin to forgive myself, Marti? In 2016 I went before the parole board for the first time, and sitting in there were the mother and great-grandmother of my victim. They looked me in the eye and said, ‘We forgive you; we forgive you so you will not be held to this atrocity and so that we will be free. They forgave me, Marti!! What a gift . . . . . maybe there is hope for me to be able to forgive myself. I think about them every day.”
Each day as I leave the prison and prepare to come back the next day, I am exhausted and spent because many have shared with me their own abuse or crime – a crime which they admit to but is not congruent with who they now are.
My heart is full because, as we move through the week’s material, I can see the integration of their life experiences with the material. I can see the light in their eyes become brighter as they come to understand how they came to make the choices they did and learn self-compassion and more paths to healing.
For them, the most rewarding piece of the experience is that they can use this to help others. They see this as a way of making amends for their actions that have hurt others.
My heart is full because I am more connected to my sisters and brothers and they to me. It is connection that heals all of us, making us more whole and human.
As our God is always and in all ways connected with us in love, through this ministry, I am privileged to share in this connection, ever deepening this love.
Reflection by Marti Zeitz, LMHC. She provides Christian counseling to the women enrolled in the Red Tent Women’s Initiative after-care program. She also travels the country offering self help classes to prison inmates. Marti wrote this having recently returned from the Solano State Prison, where she shared her faith journey with 33 students. Please keep her work in your prayers.